WHEN REALITY GOES VIRAL – A Covid-19 Survivor’s Perspective
When the abnormal becomes ‘the norm’. When the imaginary, previously seen only in sci-fi movies, becomes a daily reality. When the actions of one, or a few people, becomes a virulent ripple of death, despair, economic ruin and poverty across the world. When it begins to penetrate your own world, and those you know begin to fall down, like chess pieces, in what feels like a capricious cosmic game.
Watching the daily stats, hanging on to every word of news broadcasts, google searching to find out more, are your new pastimes. You search for answers, gleaning your way through information, in an attempt to assess your own, and your loves ones’ risks. Conspiracy theories abound, confusing you more; you’re a little afraid not to examine them, just in case there’s a nugget of truth in there. Somewhere.
You begin to see your worst fears on your TV screen, exploding on social media each time you look at your cellphone. People are dying in Europe - there’s no room in the hospitals…they’re running out of ventilators, beds. Medical staff are driven to despair, as extreme fatigue sets in and they’re losing lives every single day. You begin to step back from the news, from the stats, as your own fear sets in. Hard. Running deep. Your sense of disbelief at how it could have come to this, grows with each day. It starts to feel like you’re living in a surreal fugue.
Every day the scientists are saying something different – at first this is a respiratory virus, then it’s an inflammatory virus. The scientists begin to contradict each other – who are you to believe? World powers and big pharma begin to race to get the first vaccine ready for market. You wonder about the ethics of all this – there’s fame and fortune to be gained. Will they all lose sight of its purpose – to save lives?…you begin to wonder.
The World’s countries make it through the first virulent wave…we’re told there will definitely be a second wave. You fervently hope this will turn out to not be true. You are sad every single day at the knowledge of the devastation this virus has wreaked; all the loved ones lost. What will our world be like after this?...you wonder. You find yourself thinking the world cannot take much more of this. It needs to end.
Then it reaches out to touch you, and you wake up one morning to realise you feel really ill, and that you too are infected. You are exhausted in a way you’ve not felt before…dizzy….a strange headache blooms across your brain…your legs feel unstable, jelly-like. Despite your every attempt to avoid it through mask-wearing, avoidance of crowded indoor spaces, and profuse hand-sanitising. Terror strikes your heart, because you know the truth – this virus is an utterly vicious and unpredictable swine. You may wake up unable to breathe. Tomorrow. What will those you love do without you…should you be tying up loose ends, so that they don’t have to do it, should this virus (God forbid!) actually kill you?
You contact your doctor, he agrees it sounds like you’ve contracted it. He says he’s very sorry. (This worries you a lot, because he’s usually quite cold and factual – does he think this might be your death sentence!?). His next words are that you need to go for a test. Off you go, thereafter enduring 48 hours of waiting for the test result. Then it comes…yes, you’ve got It. Now your doctor tells you that you need to whatsapp him every 48 hours, detailing your every symptom. This worries you more, because you know he’s worried. He’s known you for almost 40 years.
And so you become lost in a haze of hours, days, sleepless nights. You opt to watch Netflix till 2am, till your eyes are so damn heavy that they must close for sleep. You can’t sleep because you are frightened of not waking up, or of waking up to a reality without breath. You wonder if your insomnia is also due to the viral brain inflammation you’ve read about. You make it to day 5, you’re okayish…just unbearably tired, weak, dizzy, with a headache that comes and goes. Monitoring your own body in a state of hyper-vigilance, is what you feel you need to do. Breathing – fine. Heart rate – ok. Alright then, maybe I’m going to be ok…you think.
Day 6 is a nasty game-changer. You wake up from a dream in which you were receiving oxygen in a specialist Covid hospital well-known to you, and you’re choking as you awaken. But…you’re putting on a brave face for your loved ones…you cannot have them worry, as then you will worry about their fears, and their fears will escalate your own. Realising you’re having trouble swallowing, as your throat is so sore and swollen, you understand why you had that awful dream, so you reach for your phone to message your doctor. It’s the ‘every-48-hours-message-day’ anyway. He’s suitably firm in his response, sounding perfectly in control, voice-noting you that he’s now going to prescribe cortisone and Zithromycin. You understand what this means. It means he’s concerned about this infection going into your chest. You’re aware that could mean the dreaded pneumonia may invade. Fear flares through your chest periodically throughout the day. It becomes confusing, because fear breeds anxiety, which causes a tight chest, and dizziness. You’re aware of this, but it’s very hard to control. A kind friend volunteers to get your meds, and drop them off, bringing you treats as well. You cry because their kindness touches you to the core.
Your partner with whom you live, seems fine. He’s not showing symptoms – this brings some relief, as you wonder what on earth would happen if you both fell gravely ill. People say crazy things to you. They say; “I hope that you will recover”. Entirely incognisant of the sub-text of your potential death, in those words. You choose to let it go. You understand that you can’t afford the aggravation, or to become angry. You smile inside, because you know they don’t know what it’s like. Yet. You hope the vaccine will come soon, and they will achieve full immunity before they have to find out what it feels like to live inside this fear.
8 hours after you’ve swallowed that first antibiotic, your throat has improved drastically. You’re going to be ok…you think. Your doctor is a very aware and knowledgeable guy…you feel a surge of affection for him. Morning brings further horror – this time, not due your own health. Now there’s a message on your cellphone which seems to be implying that the colleague who has been gravely ill with Covid, has died during the night. Heart slamming, you scan your work emails looking to ease your mind. Your worst horrors are confirmed. He has passed. This son-of-a-bitch virus has taken him. You think you might pass out, as your anxiety escalates to new heights. You know you could be next. You also feel like a melodramatic fool for thinking this. But you’re not being melodramatic – people are dying unexpectedly from this virus every single day. It’s 3 hours before you’ve got a grip on the claws of terror closing around your heart.
It’s day 8. Doing well. Still no sleep. Still more tired and dizzy than you knew you could ever be. Every day you read the message you wrote on your makeup mirror, in red lipstick, on day 1 of confirmed diagnosis. You know that for you, the fight is mental and affirmations are imperative. The words “f*** you, and f*** off, Covid”, look back at you. You laugh inside, at yourself, at the lengths you choose to go to, but a part of you thinks its great that you do this. Whatever works for you, works, and you need to do what works.
Day 9 – no dizziness. This is a huge improvement. Fatigue still haunts you, you still feel weak, and the headaches have mostly left. Day 11 means the end of isolation, and you need to go to the bank, as in your fatigued, brain-fogged state, you managed to lock yourself out of your internet banking. Wrong password. You’re looking forward to getting outside again, but you’re also afraid. Afraid of pushing your body too hard. Afraid of fear itself…more fear, that is. You’ve begun experiencing pain in your back, and your chest has been a little tight of late – you think of your lungs; you wonder what’s going on inside there. You also know you’ve been very afraid, and so very tense. So you try a topical muscle rub, and the pain leaves for a while. Relief floods through you as you realise this is tension pain, and possibly a little virally-induced muscular inflammation. You think you’re going to make it…but dear god, all those stories about those who have had a severe flare-up as much as 6 weeks later, and have since passed on! It haunts you. Your “number” could still come up. 51 years old. So much still to live for, so much I haven’t yet achieved. It’s going to be okay, it has to be. I’m doing better every day. The world is waiting for me to get out there. I hadn’t seen my mom for almost 3 weeks.
And so it was finally day Day 11, and into the car I got, to run those errands, with my man driving. Outside the bank, I realised I still felt too weak to stand in the queue, and so I sat down on a nearby stool, while Rob kept the place in the queue for me. A quick trip to Dischem to top up on the vitamins was next, then to get a new battery for my car. 3 hours later, all done, and back home. I was so tired that I had to lie down for hours. This is totally unlike me and I fretted a lot about how I was ever going to get back to normalcy, again. I was so very grateful that my doc had booked me off for another week, saying that it takes a while for the body to totally recover from this.
So here we are…and here I am, on day 25 since my first symptom. Day 23 was the day I woke up feeling almost ‘like myself’, again.
Yesterday – Day 24 – I woke up feeling so unbelievably grateful to be alive, that I actually cried with joy. Weaving its way through my joy, there’s also been a festering anger. Those who walk around out there in the public spaces, masks hanging off their mouths, not covering chins – exposing their fellow humans to potential health disasters. The denialists, who continue to insist that “this is just the flu”. Stories of others whose loved ones in the same household, were confirmed covid positive, and yet these people are not self-isolating. I try to forgive them, because I can understand that denial is their choice of defence mechanism against the fear. It’s also true that pure selfish intent is the motive behind some of this behaviour, and I find this utterly unconscionable.
I have many moments of Survivor’s Guilt. I don’t understand why this virus has killed so many people, who were in all respects healthy and vivacious individuals, before they got struck down. I don’t understand why I was not of them. I’m so very humbled to be here writing this, as a person who has recovered from it. The message is still on my mirror, because I need to continue sending out the affirmation that this virus will have no truck in my life, or the lives of my loved ones. I do experience fear of a resurgence of symptoms (possibly much more severely, this time), as no one can tell any of us Survivors when we are actually “in the clear”. I lost two friends, and one colleague during my recovery, but I am so very fortunate in that I have not lost a family member. I know that I still could.
If you are reading this as a loved one who’s lost one or more of your very nearest and dearest to this virus, know that my heart bleeds for you. I cry a lot, because I have a full awareness of your, and all the others’, pain. I stand before you in humility, and I can never answer that terrible question that burns in your heart: “WHY?”. I wish I could gift you with the answers, and with closure. As a Survivor, I cannot give you any magic formula discovered on my own recovery journey, for how you and your other loved ones can avoid being struck down. I can only say continue to practice the basic rules of distance and hygiene. Be extremely vigilant of how you feel each day, and listen to your body. If you become ill with this virus, report every single new symptom, and change in symptom, to your doctor. Make peace with the fact that no matter what you do, you cannot completely control outcomes. Know that your biggest battle with this disease, is mental. It’s fear. It’s uncertainty. Guard your thoughts diligently. Make a firm decision that you have to survive it, because that will give all who know you the courage to face the virus head-on, too.
I fervently hope that Covid 19 changes our world forever. Once this is over, I’d like to see a world which embraces better values; to be part of a species who recognises that we are one people, one tribe, who all bleed the same - no matter creed, colour, or status. I know that is an idealistic and tall order – after all, the past vile atrocities of humankind are splattered over the pages of many a history book. I believe the biggest tribute we can give to all those who lost their lives to this virus, and to those whom they left behind, is to work together to change our future world for the better. We are capable of great heroism, great compassion, and great love. Let’s turn the brittle stones of our grief and suffering into a future of beauty. Let’s make all of our suffering worth something. May the history books yet to come speak of the virus which forever changed the world, as we knew it, for the better. Be kind always, (and that includes to yourself).
Take courage, Friend.